The Japanese have given us karate, sushi, karaoke and Hello Kitty, but their latest cultural export is shinrin-yoku, the healing art of forest bathing.
It’s an activity that while new to the UK is already being practiced in our corner of Yorkshire – a fact that allowed me to learn more without flying to the Far East, or even leaving Huddersfield.
And so, on a sunny Saturday morning I joined a small group of first-timers experiencing Japanese forest bathing in a wooded area near Marsden in the Colne Valley.
The event had been organised by Sally Edward, a mindfulness meditation instructor, and her colleague Ruth Dodds.
They are both keen to introduce shinrin-yoku, also translated as ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’, as a way to enhance wellbeing. Research in Japan has shown that forest bathing has a number of health benefits and may even help to prevent serious conditions such as cancer.
As Ruth, an ecologist with 20 years experience working as a countryside ranger, explained: “It’s about walking in a forest in a slow and deliberate way, to connect to nature. Modern living is increasingly removing us from the natural world and people feel alienated. The natural world is where we are all developed to be and we have lost that connection.
“Forest bathing was developed by the Japanese in the 1980s as a way of treating some of the stress-related conditions prevalent in the modern world. They have carried out a lot of research into it that shows walking in a forest reduces blood pressure and reduces levels of stress hormones. It also increases the number of killer cells that fight disease.”
Of course, there’s nothing to stop any of us from walking in forests, but Sally and Ruth argue that to gain the full benefits it’s important to adopt mindfulness techniques (paying attention to the present moment) while doing so. Simply strolling through a woodland is not the same thing at all as forest bathing. And, just in case anyone was wondering about the ‘bathing’ aspect, Sally points out: “It’s not about taking your clothes off, putting on your bathing suit and wandering about in a forest.” In fact, we’d been warned to wear long trousers and stout walking shoes to protect ourselves from nettles, brambles and insects.
Ruth, who also trained as a mindfulness instructor, explained that during our walk from the Coach House Healing Centre in Cellars Clough she would invite us to participate in activities that would help us focus on our surroundings and get the full benefit of forest bathing.
The first ‘invitation’ was to choose a stone from a stream and place it in a circle to create a ‘portal’ from our everyday world into the forest world, through which we all solemnly stepped. If I felt a little foolish, I think I hid it well.
Once in the forest we widened our gaze to take in as much as we could. What did we notice, asked Ruth. Lots of butterflies and insects, I volunteered. Others were less literal and more poetic in their observations. Focus on one small object, she added, and really study it; pay attention to every detail. I chose a blackberry flower and watched bees and other insects visit it. What did I observe? That there are many different kinds of bee and some insects are extraordinarily brightly coloured.
Then we walked like a deer or forest animal, hands cupped around our ears to increase their sensitivity. What could we hear? Surprisingly, a lot more than our ears normally pick up. This proved to be one of the morning’s revelatory moments.
In a wooded clearing we sat on a tarpaulin and were invited to meditate on the sounds around us – the water swooshing over a weir; shrill blackbird song; a rumbling train; distant traffic and another party of walkers (who were probably wondering what we were all doing).
My mind, I discovered some time ago, is not easily stilled or satisfied by doing nothing, even for just a few minutes. It’s too enquiring (nosey, some might say). But Ruth says that being enquiring is a good thing, it’s just important to focus on one thing at a time.
Before we leaving the woodland realm, Ruth collected some litter that other forest users (and fire bathers) had left behind and bagged it up to take away. It’s good, she says, to give something back to the forest.
Had I enjoyed my morning of forest bathing? As someone whose garden is surrounded by an oak wood and walks regularly in woodland to get to my local shops, I’d say that forest bathing gave me a different perspective on something I’ve been doing for years. I walked in a more thoughtful and appreciative way; I considered how all the parts of nature fit so neatly together. Usually, I’m walking with a companion and engaged in distracting conversation. I see my journeys through forests as means to an end, instead of an end in itself.
Before we leave the healing centre, our workshop completed, we are invited to meditate once more, and then Ruth says she’ll email us with some tips for future forest walking. When they arrive there are five.
Go with the intention to connect with nature
Take it slowly, spend some time there
Be mindful - use our senses
Go as often as you can
Give back – help to look after an area – feed the birds - pick up litter
As Sally says, the Huddersfield area is blessed with plenty of wooded areas and parks so there’s no reason why any of us should struggle to find somewhere to forest bathe.
* The reason why shinrin-yoku has become so popular in Japan is probably because the country is 68% forested. The Japanese have certain forested areas set aside especially for shinrin-yoku. In contrast, the UK is less than 13% forested.
Scientists in Japan have found that trees, particularly pine trees, emit natural chemicals called phytoncides that contain anti-microbial compounds and boost the immune system. They also increase human natural killer cell activity. Killer cells play a role in rejecting tumour cells and viruses. The positive effects of walking in forests last for seven days or more.
To find out more about shinrin-yoku workshops visit www.kindmind.co.uk or contact Sally on 07769609771.